Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators mourns the passing of contributor Neil A. Lieb

Neil A. Lieb, left, and Blaine Bell .

Neil A. Lieb, left, and Blaine Bell .

We have learned with regret of the recent passing of our contributor Neil A. Lieb. His son Neil, Jr. sent an email on Sunday, Oct. 25, and it includes these details.

At about 10 a.m., Saturday morning, my father Neil Lieb passed away.

He recently battled a case of pneumonia and although it appeared he was able to recover, it probably weakened his body beyond repair. While we won’t know exactly what caused his death, the doctors we spoke with said he may have been suffering over the last few days from a leaking heart valve which manifested itself as severe back pain. 

unnamed-1As you may know, he battled many illnesses later in life including COPD, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes to name a few. He was a such strong fighter it seemed like he would live to 100 and beyond…but alas it was not in the cards.

After losing his wife and the love of his life just over three years ago, he was never quite the same. I’m sure he is happy now that he is reunited with his bride of 59 years. 

The story of how Neil met his wife Jolene while on the job for Tillotson Construction Company is documented in this blog.
Neil first contacted us in July 2014:

My name is Neil A. (Anderson) Lieb. I graduated from Pocahontas High School in May of 1949. I worked on the original concrete elevator from June until its completion. I also worked on the one built in Clare the same summer. I continued to work for Tillotson Construction Company until August of 1951.

Neil Lieb later in life While employed by Tillotson I helped build similar structures in Bushland and Cannon, Texas; Alto and West Bend, Iowa: and Marshall, Missouri. I am currently working on my autobiography and would like to have some data on these structures (capacity, specifications, etc.). 

The message led to several enjoyable hours of phone conversations with Neil and his supplying dozens of photos from Tillotson jobs. He said that he didn’t take the photos and didn’t know who did, but as far as we were concerned, it was no matter because we had a new wealth of documentary details.

We salute Neil Lieb for his great contribution to our blog and extend our condolences to his family.

Omaha’s Florence Mill offers antiquities to elevator enthusiasts in Oct. 24 sale

A friend of Our Grandfathers’ Grain Elevators has called the following item to our attention, and we are presenting the notice that appears on the historic Florence Mill’s Facebook page: Unusual vintage items for sale on Saturday, October 24, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sale Address: 3034 Sprague St., Omaha, Nebr.

Nebraska’s oldest business site and first mill was a ruin in 1998…but destined for preservation. Items worth saving were removed so that cleaning and restoration could begin.
The warehouse where these items have been stored since 1998 has been sold. Included in the sale: Country Grain Elevator Primitives, Vintage Machinery, Scales, Old Wood Boxes, Odd Metal Items, Tools, Wood Flooring, Wood Timbers, Trunks, Bins, Windows, Doors, Tools, some household items, four solid wood (with glass) kitchen-cabinets from the 1919 Tomlinson home…and much more. Everything must go! Warehouse must be empty before November.

Hunting trips afford opportunities for two types of photography

DSC_0889Story and photos by Kristen Cart

We live far from the preponderance of the nation’s grain elevators. Time and money are not unlimited, so it takes a good excuse to go look at elevators when the family has other things on the agenda. Western hunting expeditions are a splendid source for such excuses, so once or twice on each trip, I sneak in an elevator stop.

On a typical trip west, when you have a camera and the inclination to take pictures, vistas of country living make you suddenly pull over, disentangle the camera strap from the seatbelt, and send snack wrappers tumbling to the floor. A few epithets escape your lips when you find the ISO is still set for the moon shot of the night before, but unless a fleeing bird made you stop, the problem is quickly fixed.

DSC_0502In the hotel at night you eagerly page through the day’s images, occasioning a few more blue words, but often great satisfaction. You have elevators and neat old buildings, and you also have scenery. The rest of your family members roll their eyes and talk about elk and pheasants and bird dogs.

The fruits of your labor make it worth the effort–especially if you come home with beautiful pictures and meat for the freezer.

On the eve of another hunting trip, here are a few photos from earlier trips, including the odd elevator picture or two that slipped into the mix.


DSC_0967 DSC_1009 DSC_1026 DSC_1038 DSC_1168 DSC_1180 DSC_1215

The Pocahontas, Iowa, elevator remains a lovely monument to Tillotson ingenuity


Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The Tillotson elevator at Pocahontas, Iowa, first came to our attention as the site of a tragic accident where a young construction worker lost his life. Larry Ryan fell to his death because he tripped while crossing from the elevator to the annex on a makeshift wooden walkway, according to fellow workers. He wore brand new work boots and some speculated that they contributed to the accident. The young hoist operator was twenty years old when he fell 130 feet to his death from the top of the nearly completed annex in 1954.

I finally had the opportunity to see the site for myself this past summer. We took a wide detour north of our regular route from Nebraska to Illinois–it added a good four hours driving time, not counting the stops. My young cheering section (the kids) were not cheering about the extra road time.


Upon our arrival in Pocahontas, a town along Lizard Creek in north central Iowa miles away from any major state thoroughfares, we immediately noticed the Tillotson elevator and its trademark rounded headhouse. The annex stood beside the original elevator, rising higher (by 10 feet) than its 120 foot companion, and gleaming with clean whitewashed concrete. It showed no sign of its sorrowful beginnings.

Later additions, including an elevator with headhouse, a flat storage shed, old steel hoppers, and modern steel bins with external legs, surrounded the two concrete structures.

The Tillotson elevator and annex were flanked on one side by a quiet street with an old church and ancient maple trees. The bustle of grain trucks was absent on the Sunday afternoon of our visit, and the co-op office was closed. Only the elevator exhaust fans pierced the silence.

We circled the complex, taking a number of photographic views, before going on our way.

We have the specifications for both the 1949 elevator and its 1954 annex. The annex construction record is detailed here.


The Pocahontas annex was built with six 18-foot diameter, 10-foot spread by 130-foot high bins; with a basement; the bins were flat bottomed, built with 30-inch belt conveyors and tripper.

Planned capacity (with pack) was 222,440 bushels; translating to 1,863 bushels of capacity per foot of height. The total reinforced concrete, per plans, was 1,366 cubic yards. Plain concrete for hoppers, per plans, was 9.5 cubic yards, and reinforcing steel used, including jack rods, was 69.59 tons.

The design specified the average quantity of reinforcing steel used for the whole annex, which was 101.89 pounds per cubic yard of concrete.  Actual planned amounts were then itemized for various components of the structure:

Main slab: 27,017 lbs. steel/219 c.y. concrete

Drawform walls: 30,708 lbs. steel/990 c.y. concrete

Overhead bin bottoms: 9,957 lbs. steel/70.5 c.y. concrete

Bin roof and extension roofs: 6,740 lbs. steel/44 c.y. concrete

Cupola walls: 3,747 lbs. steel/33 c.y. concrete

Cupola roof: included in walls

Bridge/Tunnel: 1,020 lbs. steel/9.5 c.y. concrete


Dimensions and weight of the annex and its components were laid out also. The main slab was 52′ x 60′, for an actual outside area on the ground of 2,946 square feet.

The weight of reinforced concrete, calculated at 4,000 pounds per cubic yard of concrete plus steel, was 2,801 tons. The plain concrete was also calculated at 4,000 pounds per cubic yard and totaled 19 tons. The weight of the hopper fill sand was 177 tons.

When the weight of grain was added to the specifications, at 60 pounds per bushel (for Pocahontas, the grain load would total 6,660 tons), the planned gross weight of the annex could be predicted. Twelve tons of steel and machinery were added to the total, for a planned gross weight, loaded, of 9,669 tons.

From these figures, bearing pressure was calculated to be 3.28 tons per square foot.

To handle all of that pressure, the main slab was made 24 inches thick. It was built with #8 steel, placed at 6″ c.c. spacing. Tank steel and bottoms (for round tanks) used #4 steel at 9″ c.c. spacing.

The drawform walls, with extension, measured 411 linear feet, and 130 feet in height. Cupola dimensions were 16′ x 56′ x 8 1/3′.

Since this was an annex, distribution of grain was accomplished through the main elevator leg and thence by belt conveyors and a tripper. Many of the items expected for elevator specifications were absent for an annex. For machinery, the annex had top and bottom belts, rated at 600’/min or 3,000 bushels per hour. 7 1/2 horsepower drives were used for a total load rate of 9,000 bushels per hour.

Loading rates are key for grain storage operations, since they determine how quickly trucks or rail cars can unload and be on their way. Slow elevators become obsolete. The Pocahontas operation was at the leading edge of technology with its shiny new 1954 annex, and to this day it provides quick, efficient service.



Bruce Selyem, an old hand in elevator photography, is still in the game


Ione, Oregon

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

An eagerly awaited package arrived in the mail the other day. I opened it to find Bruce and Barbara Selyem’s 2016 elevator calendar–a vivid sampling of the photography work that Bruce has done over the years. Barbara Selyem called me to see if I would like one this year–I am an old customer, and I get one every year. So of course I asked her to send it.

Thirteen carefully selected images grace the calendar, and it does not disappoint.


Indus, Alberta, Canada

Selyem Enterprises also produces framed elevator images for home and business, and if I bought everything I liked, I would run out of wall space very quickly. Bruce has documented many beautiful old wooden elevators in the United States and Canada that have gradually disappeared. Over the 20-plus years Bruce has been shooting elevators, most of the structures have only his photos to remember them by.


Mossleigh, Alberta, Canada

If my kids had anyone to blame for the numerous side trips, excursions, and stops we have made to take pictures of wooden elevators in the wild, Bruce Selyem would top their list. I have studied his website carefully to plan for elevator photography trips in Idaho and Oregon. Many times the kids have admonished me for the odd elevator stop on the way to Nebraska. I can’t help it. They are beautiful.

Though not many of my wooden elevator photos have been published here, there is quite a collection of them. It is a passion, and I come by it honestly.

My grandfather, William Osborn, took many photos when I was a little girl. I remember the bellows on his camera, the camera body he carefully set up on a tripod, and his advice to sit still. He would pull the Polaroid photo out of the back of the camera while he started his buzzing timer. The hand on the timer would move interminably, and I would stand on tip-toe, eagerly awaiting the magic moment. Then he would peel the negative away and voila, a damp image would emerge, which I would hold gingerly by the edges while it dried.

As a girl, I wondered at the photo of his first elevator in McCook, Nebraska, that he built for Mayer-Osborn. I never knew I would combine his love for photography with his life’s work one day, and share all of it here.

To check out the photography of Bruce Selyem, visit his website at grain elevator photos. Bruce and Barbara Selyem welcome you.


A concrete beauty. Nyssa, Oregon

Elevator investigations move farther afield with a side trip to Alta, Iowa


The trademark rounded headhouse identifies the Tillotson elevator, shown here behind the office and truck scale.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

It is getting harder to visit our grandfathers’ elevators. All of the elevators within a half hour either side of the I-80 corridor have already been exhausted, so a stop for photography requires real planning and extra gas, time, and effort, even when piggybacked on our normal family visit to Nebraska.

The trip to Alta, Iowa, required just such an extra investment in driving time. The town and its Tillotson elevator is just north-west of Storm Lake in the northwestern corner of the state, and is not, quite frankly, on the way to anywhere.


The Tillotson elevator in Alta, Iowa, where the old structure is mostly obscured by later bins.

I wonder how our kids put up with it. This trip in particular required over an hour’s northward jaunt before angling generally east-northeast, with a 30-minute divot or two along the Nebraska-to-Illinois route. Each detour took in wayward sites, including Alta.


A look up the rail line opposite the Tillotson elevator revealed the historical trappings of town, with a backdrop of new grain bins.

It is normally a 10-hour drive to get home from visiting their grandparents, but this elevator excursion would tax my children’s patience for several more hours. To be fair, we got an extra early start. But that meant the serious backseat fidgeting would start sooner.

You would think that I would study Tillotson records first, and inject some discipline and efficiency into planning our route.

But no, that task was left for after the trip, so I could see how closely we approached several sites without seeing them.

I don’t think the kids minded the near misses–but they’ll get to see the countryside again when we go through to mop up the strays.


A long-time elevator man sends greetings from Hardy, Iowa, and shares some lore


Story and photos by Larry Larsen

In response to a recent post about Odebolt, Iowa, we heard from Larry Larsen, who works for Gold Eagle Cooperative’s facility in Hardy, Iowa. Larry says Tillotson Construction Company’s elevator, built there in 1956, is “still operating and used daily!”

GilmoreCity08Larry graduated from high school in Gilmore City, Iowa. His father managed an elevator from 1958 to 2008, and Larry remembers high school summers spent cleaning out and painting silos.

After getting in touch with us, Larry took an excursion and delivered some photos of the Gilmore City elevator. It was built in 1949, a year when Tillotson also built elevators in Dalhart, Tex., Hooker, Okla., Hordville, Neb., West Bend, Iowa, and Montevideo, Minn., among other places.

Larry, who served 25 years in the United States Army, shared these additional reminiscences:

“I know a lot of the facilities in my old stomping grounds are [built by] Todd & Sargent. The facilities built in the 1980s and 1990s were done by Lambert & Hamlin.

“Interesting thing–I found out through my dad in early 2000s that Lambert & Hamlin built or started to build two concrete tanks in the town of Rutland, Iowa, and about halfway into that project they went bankrupt, causing Pro Cooperative to find a contractor mid-pour to finish the project.

GilmoreCity06“Pro Cooperative then became receiver of Lambert & Hamlin’s property in Sioux City.

“A lot of interesting history in many of the small towns all around the Midwest with the construction of elevators. Some communities had their population double when crews came to town.

“Reading the blogs, there was also a lot of tragedy involved, with people falling off the partially completed structures. I remember, in the early ’80s, Lambert & Hamlin was doing a slip in the tiny town of Pioneer, Iowa.

“They had a laborer who was smoking pot as he was tying rebar on the night shift. Said individual stopped tying rebar to light a joint, lost his balance, and fell 80 or so feet to his death.

“Slipping never paused for that.”